April 30, 2008

Heat Index: January-April 2008

With a third of the year down, Michael F. Gill lists and rates his favorite and not-so-favorite releases of 2008.

(more…)


October 17, 2007

Ewan Pearson – Piece Work

The case of Ewan Pearson poses an interesting conundrum. He has never released any original music to the public under his own name, yet there are enough remixes available to compile this double CD set, all billed to him. So when do we consider a remixer to be an artist in his or her own right? Does Pearson do enough with these remixes to forge something that should be considered his own “work” despite the fact that he didn’t technically compose any of the music on it, at least in the traditional (and the music publishing) sense? Does the identity on the front of the label affect the way we react to the music inside? Are we at the point where we can consider remixers to be artists in the traditional sense of the word?

Well, while the voices may sound familiar in spots – the Flaming Lips (with the Chemical Brothers), Goldfrapp, Franz Ferdinand, Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode among others – Pearson does lovingly make each track his own. His trademarks – beats that propel rather than overpower, deep beds of spaced-out keys and echoing effects, a strong sense of melody – are all here in spades. Every track buzzes with energy to spare, and each individual piece goes towards forging the larger whole of the ARTISTIC STATEMENT. Except, it’s a remix collection. See the rub?

Whatever brings you to Piece Work, there’s plenty here to keep you coming back, from the sinister S&M sax frenzy of Playgroup’s “Make It Happen” and the New Orderisms of Franz Ferdinand’s “Outsiders,” to the utterly sublime flotation of Cortney Tidwell’s “Don’t Let the Stars Keep Us Tangled Up” and the epic disco journey of Goldfrapp’s “Ride a White Horse.” But the overall feel and the sound and the real music here is Pearson’s and Pearson’s alone. Over the course of these 21 tracks, Pearson’s musical identity unfolds before your ears, and as a remixer and as an artist, there is no higher compliment to be paid.

I would argue yes, we can and we should consider the remixer the “artist” here, and I think most dance music enthusiasts have come to a similar conclusion over the years. However, to the vast majority of listeners, the name in lights is the only one that matters. Pearson’s work here can stand as Exhibit A in the court of public opinion on the matter, and thanks to the big names here, maybe this collection will make a dent in the public at large. Pearson’s particular brand of mutant tech house-cum-space-disco is easily identifiable on a four-track remix 12-inch – hearing it all together just reinforces the quality and consistency.

K7 / 221
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


October 15, 2007

Trentemøller – The Trentemøller Chronicles

Anders Trentemøller’s second full-length release follows in the footsteps of his first (The Last Resort on Poker Flat) in that it too is released as a double CD set. As the name suggests, however, this is mainly previously released material: one disc is a mix of Trentemøller’s tracks (and one remix of a track by Klovn), including some new and exclusive songs, and the second is a collection of key remixes of other artists, including The Knife, Robyn, Moby, and Mathias Schaffhäuser. While longtime followers may be frustrated by the lack of new material, the convenience factor of the CD format and general quality of the tracks seems to be a pretty even trade.

Trentemøller may be treading water with this release, but at least he can’t be accused of offering up the dregs; his mix ebbs and throbs with his organic fusion style, melding live instruments with clanging electronic sounds, beats, and lots of ambience for a spacious, yet danceable experience that works equally well in the big room/cabinets and the easy chair/headphones. Moving from the chilly to the frenetic and back again, this mix is perhaps the most accurate large-scale musical statement Trentemøller has made to date, moreso even than Last Resort, which for all its appeal still got lost in the trees on occasion.

In the relatively propulsive format of the mix CD, however, Trentemøller keeps things moving and shaking with enough inertia so as to not encourage fast-forwarding, yet still provides enough tempo and stylistic changes to maintain interest. Bouncing effortlessly from the funeral-paced, Cure-esque “Blood in the Streets,” to the sultry, pulsating “Moan,” to the purist techno of “Killer Kat” and “Rykketid,” Trentemøller clearly knows how to weave his own catalog into an appealing package, as well he should. Maybe he should mix all his albums from here on out.

As expected, the remix CD doesn’t hang together nearly so well, but the tracks are unified by Trentemøller’s hand at the production wheel. He selected well, choosing tracks that represent the different sides of his style well – Schaffhäuser’s “Coincidance” is a sleek, steely beast; the Knife’s “We Share Our Mother’s Health” is twisted industrial disco; Filur’s “You and I” is Basic Channel fronted by a house diva; Robyn’s “Konichiwa Bitches” is a girl-group electro beatdown. Trentemøller doesn’t shy away from vocals either, retaining a lot more of the original songs’ feel and identity – another example of his collaborative mindset that led to his trademarked sound. The result is more like a well-chosen compilation than a cookie-cuttered vanity project.

For as wonderful as much of the material on Chronicles is, it is rather frustrating to be made to purchase an entire two-disc set just to get the few new cuts and a (admittedly rather nice) mix; the option of a separate vinyl EP with the new cuts would have been nice for fans and collectors, but this is a minor complaint. Those looking for living, breathing dance music with some real depth and genuine tunes will undoubtedly be charmed by much of what’s on offer across this set.

Audiomatique / AMCD 02
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


October 8, 2007

Cobblestone Jazz – 23 Seconds

Techno and jazz. On the face of it, it’s two genres of music that have little to do with one another. But ever since techno emerged out of Detroit in the late ’70s and early ’80s, artists have been trying to combine the two. Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra project featured Francisco Mora, Craig Taborn, and Rodney Whitaker to name but a few, while Underground Resistance has proffered the idea of Hi-tech Jazz as their update on the form. To these ears, however, it’s always been hit and miss (with the focus on the latter). There’s something inherently awkward about grafting genres onto one another – and when it’s done properly it usually ends up being called something else entirely.

So leave it to three white Canadians to do it right, eh? Mathew Jonson, Danuel Tate, and Tyger Dhula are childhood friends from Vancouver, who have seemingly figured out what’s eluded producers for years – how to mix improvisatory live elements with a booming four-to-the-floor beat. It’s simple, apparently. Take filtered synth basslines, a few mutable elements that work within an easy harmonic framework, and a steady drum to wrap it all around.Those mutable elements are usually what each track lives and dies on: for “W” the trio works with a vocoder and a percolating synth line, while “Lime in Da Coconut” utilizes a rapidly evolving melody that sounds like the aural equivalent of a “Stars” Windows 3.1 screensaver. “Slap the Back” and “23 Seconds,” however, repeat past success to diminishing effect near the album’s end. It’s a tightrope: the frequently employed vocoder that makes “Peace Offering” sing weighs down “Change Your Apesuit” and the indelible groove of “Saturday Night” is almost entirely absent from “Hired Touch.”

As a long-time fan, it’s hard not to count 23 Seconds as a bit of a disappointment. The trio’s singles on Wagon Repair have been of such high quality that anything less than excellence seems unthinkable. When the trio find an uninspiring theme to work around for seven or eight (very long) minutes or so, it’s a taste issue, rather than a talent one. Cobblestone, as you might expect from the lengthy songs and minimal amount of elements to each, are a powerful live experience and that’s still the way they’re best heard. 23 Seconds is just a reminder – and a handy collection for those who still fear vinyl and mp3s.

K7 / 223
[Listen]
[Nina Phillips]


September 21, 2007

Ricardo Villalobos – Fabric 36

Fabric 36—announced years ago—has become the venerated mix series’ most anticipated disc. But in the announcement, Ricardo slipped in that he “prefers for it to be treated like a normal mix CD, with no hype.” Sure. Right. But, then again, take a quick listen to it: because despite the inevitable hype and a cover only a goth could love, Fabric 36 sounds almost carefree enough to actually live up to his modest hopes.

There’s been no lack of swipes at Ricardo Villalobos’ self-indulgence (cue this review’s gratuitous mention of Fizheuer Zieheuer), but Villalobos may be trying to save “self-indulgence” from derogatory connotations one release at a time. In his latest, what’s difficult to miss isn’t that he scraps the DJ mix as an outpouring of free publicity (for other artists) but that the mix is the rare modern entity that forces you to listen to an album as a whole. Fabric 36 has highlights but no singles—a series of tracks with only one order. And as imposing as that sounds, it only becomes an obvious fact when you try to listen to parts outside the mix itself.

Thankfully, it’s easy to get lost in the actual mix of the CD. There’s a lightness of touch throughout, leaving sections where Villalobos can transition from the introductory yelps of “Farenzer House” into the taut bass stabs of “Mecker” without batting an eye. In the midst of that section, there’s also a nudging synthpad that fleshes itself out five minutes later in the anthemic pop-rush of “4 Wheel Drive.” With Fabric 36, Villalobos has refined the volatile tangents of “Achso”—tracks are just as rambunctious and twisting, but also ebb with a purpose and destination.

That’s also a pretty apt description for this year’s earlier “album-mix” from False. But 2007, despite its breadth of textures, sounds one-note compared to the variety of rhythm and idiosyncrasies here. If 2007 was busy stumbling and scraping itself on concrete sidewalks, then Fabric 36 is a drunken party-host that introduces herself as “Moist.” And she’s not alone on the album’s centerpiece, “Andruic & Japan.” Accompanied by a personal Japanese drummer who blows his nose through a harmonica, she spouts anecdotes (about marriage, dead chickens, etc.) to either invisible guests or to herself—it depends on how demented you think she is.

Either way, she, like Villalobos, doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously here. Ricardo doesn’t ham it up on Fabric 36, but with tracks like the joyful splinter of “You Won’t Tell Me” and the celebratory finale of “Premier Encuentro Latino-Americano,” he sounds all but ready to throw away his cultivated mystique for something a little more pleasurable. And I’m still ready to indulge him a little more.

Fabric / FABRIC 71
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[Nate DeYoung]


September 18, 2007

Basteroid – Upset Ducks

At first it’s hard for me to imagine Upsets Ducks being used for dancing. I mean, I’ve felt that alchemy before, where physically encountering the music at proper volume in a dark and sweaty room consecrated to moving your ass makes even the most unassuming jams take on dimensions you couldn’t imagine in your most feverish headphone dreams, but Sebastian Riedl’s long-playing debut under the Basteroid name is too captivating in its insular, rough-and-smooth way to imagine listening communally, let alone dancing. The opening “16 Steps Away from the Stars” especially soft shoes its could-be-huge raft of interlocking burbles, melodic stabs, and static washes into something that seems to be continually turning away from the listener into somewhere more private and inaccessible; sure enough, having to be the pursuer just makes the attraction of the track fiercer.

Which isn’t to say at all that Basteroid sounds difficult or obtuse or dull; each track here packs all the “cloudbursts, breakdowns, and big hooks” that Peter Chambers summed up as the hallmarks of Areal’s sound in Beatz semi-recently. The artist and record that Riedl’s work here summons unavoidably to mind for those of us who are happy observers but not necessarily devotees of techno is The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime. But as good as that record is, the title is maybe even more appropriate for Upsets Ducks (although I wouldn’t want to lose Riedl’s sense of humor); Axel Willner’s opus opts for the in-your-face sparkle that makes his name so appropriate (think field as ground versus object, not plot of land) whereas the sneakier apogees of Basteroid get to the same heights by rougher, subtler, more sublime means.

Once Riedl hits the late period trifecta of “Pulsador de Alarma”/ “Allright” / “Un Dos Windows” it’s clear that although he’s not so headphone-pointillist as Willner he’s at least his match in crafting snarky movers that don’t so much burst at you as slyly insinuate themselves into your hindbrain. Like a lot of listeners normally so devoted to the Word, or at least the Voice, I can’t say I can actually hum any melodies even after weeks of devoted (obsessive?) listening, but I do find its steady, building pulse threading its way into more and more of my waking life.

Even as the construction of this album apparently disturbed the waterfowl outside his studio (especially the buzzy, grainy “Attention: Upsets Ducks,” I’d imagine), Riedl was crafting a near seamless 70 minutes that deserves to rival Willner’s big debut for the affections of those who normally listen to things with guitars in them.

I lack the technical or genre vocabulary to communicate to the diehards the difference in technique between, I can only talk about emotion: The Field is more like the sensation of sunshine on your face, a train ride to a new city, leaning in to kiss someone; Basteroid evokes instead the feeling of finally leaving work for the day, walking alone through your city late at night, falling asleep to the muted sound of the party next door. That the former is more obviously, maybe even aggressively ‘good’ as a set of signifiers is true, but there’s at least as much space (if not more) in my life for the latter. Riedl is definitely still capable of tearing up a dancefloor but he along with his contemporaries have finally learned the hard lessons of techno’s rich history of trying to make albums: how to craft an experience beyond that of getting up and moving, while still allowing the latter response. The result is rich and compelling enough to warrant repeated listens even from the neophytes.

Areal / AREALCD 6
[Listen]
[Ian Mathers]


September 18, 2007

Supermayer – Save The World

Remember the supergroup? It was a big conceptual thing a few decades back, but it still pops up every now and again. Here’s how it usually worked: a bunch of high pedigree rockers would get together, proclaim that they really “dug each other’s music,” book a bunch of studio time, get stoned out of their gourds, and more often than not, release an album of half-baked ideas and poorly executed jams that proceeded to shift millions of units based solely on the reputation of the players. Sometimes the idea actually worked—see Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and Derek & The Dominos. Sometimes it wouldn’t—see pretty much everyone else.

Diehard fans of the musicians in question usually lapped this stuff up, but somewhere in the back of their minds, they still felt somewhat let down more often than not. The problem was squarely on them—their expectations were simply, inevitably too high. No matter how great one of these supergroups sounded on paper, they couldn’t possibly live up to that sort of hype on record. Blaming the musicians, on the other hand, was a futile exercise. After all, they just wanted to hang out with some friends, play some music, and enjoy themselves. Can you really blame them for that?

Which brings us to the case of Supermayer, a supergroup-style collaboration between two of Kompakt’s biggest names: Michael Mayer and Superpitcher. And while the collaboration has more in common with the above than not—this is nothing if not a “fun” record—this is most certainly not a bad thing. If anything, Save the World is just the kind of project that Kompakt needed, given the (somewhat inexplicable) backlash the label has been taking of late. Too many have complained that Kompakt has taken to making records by numbers; Save the World is anything but your (stereo)typical Kompakt fare.

Just as the grooves of those ’70s albums are laden with artists just trying to have a good time and vibe with each other, so does Save the World exude a palatable sense of smiling, laughing musicians just having some fun and getting down, and most importantly, encouraging the listener to do so as well. Look no further than the first proper track on the album (after the spoken intro “Hey!”), “The Art of Letting Go”—the lyric tells the story of the album in a simple idea: over a grooving bass, chunky guitar chords, and some decidedly un-Kompakt sounds (are those horns? Melodica perhaps?), the gauntlet is thrown, “Let’s get to it / Relax / Let me go.” This is a first-class party record, assembled by two of techno’s foremost minds, and if the instruction is followed, you’ll have just as good a time listening as they obviously did making it.

With their mission statement firmly established, Supermayer proceed to circle the universe, capes flying, in search of the magic note, and while they never quite find it, the thrill of discovery is clearly the intent for our heroes (there’s even a comic book insert). There’s atmospheric dancefloor techno, there’s some light techno pop, some swinging indie bouncers, there’s vocals, there’s ambient interludes, there’s horns, there’s even a fucking gong. “The Lonesome King” is Martin Denny in Ralf and Florian’s studio; “Please Sunrise” recalls 808 State and YMO; “Two of Us” is a classic floor-filler laden with peaks and valleys; closer “Cocktails for Two” is a late-night comedown complete with shag carpeting and a disco diva perched on the love seat waiting for an afterhours tumble. It’s a gloriously unorganized mess, but all of it is so lovingly and skillfully done that it sounds far closer to some sort of mad genius.

Save the World is not a work of high art like The Magic Flute and it’s certainly not a pretentious epic like Kid A. It lives in its own skin and its comfortable there. The key to saving the world according to Supermayer is simple: lose the pressure and enjoy things for what they are, not what you expect them to be. There is an art to letting go, and they seem to have mastered it here, at least as much as such a thing can be mastered. They might not have saved the world, but Supermayer might just have saved your next house party.

Kompakt / KOMPAKTCD 61
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


September 17, 2007

Modeselektor – Happy Birthday!

Actually Modeselektor are excited to become cartoons. The group’s last couple of album covers are giddily aware of it. Inside the cover for Happy Birthday! and on its portly made-for-CD running-time, Modeselektor pound away with ACME anvils and beep beep through open ranges—covering the distance between bangers and ballads. Or, to be fair, it’s just bangers and ballads. That’s it.

Let’s not take away from Modeselektor’s strengths though, the pair is also good at bastardizing genres and music scenes. Their debut album wasn’t named Hello Mum! for no reason. Happy Birthday! just begs to be described in a pragmatic word like “chock-full,” but here’s an overlooked factoid—it’s the first album to be graced by one Thom Yorke which isn’t worried about being tasteful with a capital T.

Being tasteless suits the band just fine. With “2000007,” it also lets them out-prefuse Prefuse 73. Not stuck explaining their exquisite band name or racial politics must be fun, because it definitely sounds a helluva lot more brash and exciting than what Scott Herren is doing these days. The track might be in the genre-netherworld between glitch-hop and euro-crunk, but it’s definitely an unabashed sequel to group’s last album opener with the French rap group TTC.

Modeselektor continue to gleefully plunder their own past as well as others for inspiration throughout the 18 tracks. One notable choice is Scooter and their Teutonic happy-hardcore schlockfest, “Hyper Hyper.” The original isn’t waiting to be rediscovered anytime soon, which makes Modeselektor’s locked-jaw and straight-faced cover even more perfect. Enlisting Otto Von Schirach for the vocal role of Wizard-gone-Return to Oz, with a couple flying monkeys in tow, “Hyper Hyper” is bound to make another generation of kids yell for hardcore all over again.

When the tempo slows, the duo is wise to make their music just as sonically juicy and epic. On their collaboration with Apparat, “Let Your Love Grow,” the group let a field of bulbous synths and trip-hop drum patterns sprout around Paul St. Hilaire, ending up with a dead ringer for Massive Attack. The track is a highlight but one that’s sure to be trumped in notoriety by “The White Flash.” The group’s best contribution to “White Flash” is to let Thom Yorke do what he does best (i.e. play lost angel in our dystopia and moaning into the abyss), and Yorke is perfectly laconic in return—he even twists the euphoric “you have all the time in the world” into something preciously fleeting.

Happy Birthday! constantly reminds me of something Vitalic said in an interview—”I like people screaming in the sound with explosions.” When Modeselektor don’t try to fit every scream and explosion into its folds, the album sags. Tacks like “BMI” and “The Wedding Toccata Theme” sound dull when set against the cartoon-ish extremes of a song like “The First Rebirth,” which comes alive by being chopped and crunked before your ears. Luckily, most of Happy Birthday! finds Modeselektor being so busy being loony tunes that there’s little time to sit still and be bored.

Bpitch Control / BPC 159CD
[Listen]
[Nate DeYoung]


September 10, 2007

San Serac – Professional

It often seems that the sincere ones are the most susceptible to disappearing in the future. Is that ironic or realistic? I think back to the half-remembered NYC indie/new wave group My Favorite, who channeled and built upon the literate poetry and angst of The Smiths and New Order better than any other group I’ve heard. But there wasn’t anything flashy or shockingly innovative about My Favorite’s music, and the fact that they always wore their earnestness on their sleeves eventually sealed their fate to obscurity.

I bring up My Favorite in relation to San Serac because Professional makes a case for the two groups being kindred spirits (not to mention that SS did do a remix for My Favorite’s swansong, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives). However, San Serac, fitting more into the growing indie-dance community, has a more marketable flash in his pan to overcome tags of “sophistication” and “maturity”.

That flash comes from an deeper set of musical influences than your average Ed Banger types, moving beyond the standard Daft Punk aping and post-punk racket to also include a sincere love of ’80s R&B, Funk, Freestyle and, dare I say it, Yacht Rock. The slightly peevish vocals from SS mastermind Nat Rabb may not sound too different from a standard !!! or LCD Soundsystem record (even if he can do a good Bowie impression), but you never get the feeling he is putting you on, even as he is namedropping Luis Buñuel films, rhyming “commission” with “extradition”, and describing his plans for nihilstic love. This unbridled affection manifests itself in small ways throughout the record, but one of the key tip-offs is “The Black Monolith”, a rather heartfelt quiet storm number that could’ve easily been played for raised eyebrows and theatrical pastiche.

If there’s one criticism I might throw at Professional, its that some of the arrangements might be a bit overcooked for dance floor play, a qualm that is actually resolved by the CD’s addition of four dubbed out tracks (billed “for DJs only”) that follow the album proper. For the most part, San Serac has me excited about a fusion of indie rock and dance that is more sophisticated than the Modular or Kitsuné template. Garish and more distorted blog-house artists will get more words written about them, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a classier indie-dance record in 2007 than Professional.

Frogman Jake / FMJ 23
[Listen]
[Michael F. Gill]


September 7, 2007

Deepchord Presents Echospace – The Coldest Season

2007CD/AlbumDubTechno

Dub techno is a bit of a challenging listen, much in the same way, say, free jazz is. On first listen, the genres are practically opposites, but in approach and execution, they are remarkably similar—it isn’t about the melodies, it’s about the sounds and the feelings. The “challenge” in free jazz is to follow all the different parts down their winding paths and to see the craft and invention in its rendering. The “challenge” in dub techno is the opposite, to find the excitement and movement in what at first sounds like a static and unmoving piece.

Since dub techno was pioneered by the Basic Channel camp in the early ’90s, casual listeners might not even have noticed much progression—after all, the template is basically the same concoction of deep, muted, echoing chords, subsonic bass lines, compressed hi-hats, and lots of tape hiss—and much the way that Ornette Coleman might sound just like Anthony Braxton to the untrained ear, so might Maurizio sound just like Thomas Brinkmann. Dig a little deeper into either genre, however, and the subtleties and nuances become more and more apparent, and one’s appreciation deepens. The devil may be in the details, but so are the thrills.

Detroit native Rod “Deepchord” Modell—he and Chicagoan Steven “Soultek” Hitchell are partners in Echospace, also a label—has been operating as a shadowy entity for some time now, unleashing limited-run singles over the years that fetch crazy sums on eBay. Now with this, their highest profile and best-distributed release to date, the pair have stepped up and released their masterwork. Judged on its own merits, The Coldest Season should stand as one of the best electronic releases of the year, and one of the best dub techno releases in the last decade.

Certainly, one can appreciate the music here on strictly a background level. The album definitely conjures a mood, and played at a low level, it creates a suitably laid-back, chilled atmosphere—downright icy, in fact. The beats don’t kick in on opener “First Point of Aries” until well past the three-minute mark, giving the swirling, hissing synths plenty of time to work up some steam (or frost, if you will). The tracks tumble and roll into each other through the entire first half of the album, each track morphing into the next, but distinct in themselves, and listening to these transitions, admiring the little differences from track to track, is half the fun of the dub techno experience. “Ocean of Emptiness” is nearly 12 minutes of beatless space; “Celestialis” is a shuffling, almost funky drive through the big city at night. Tiny trails of melody drift, barely audible, through “Sunset,” while “Elysian” ups the percussion and twists and turns the mix actively throughout its, almost aggressive. The biggest and best thrills are saved for last, however, as the closer “Empyrean” is the most inventive and downright catchy thing here, with a percolating rhythm track, spooked-out organ stabs, and a truly inspiring drop out. If anything here makes you leap for the repeat button, it’s this. Otherwise, just playing the entire album on a loop will do just fine, thanks.

With all this in mind, anyone going into The Coldest Season expecting some sort of radical departure from the dub techno style that has proceeded it will likely be disappointed. Basic Channel effectively invented the wheel of this genre, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t admire the latest models to roll off the modern assembly line. There are enough new wrinkles and, yes, thrills here to appeal to devotees and newbies alike.

Modern Love / LOVE 33CD
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


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